Washington University selected for $1 million HHMI Inclusive Excellence Initiative

Nationwide program aims for diversity, success among undergraduate science students

Washington University students collaborate on a chemistry project in The Teaching Center's Active Learning Lab.

Washington University in St. Louis is one of 24 schools selected to receive $1 million grants as part of a new HHMI initiative to help colleges and universities foster success in science for all students, especially undergraduates who enter four-year institutions via nontraditional pathways.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the largest private, nonprofit supporter of science education in the United States, announced June 7 the first round of schools selected for its Inclusive Excellence Initiative.

More than 500 schools submitted proposals for the grants, which are designed to reshape campus support for undergraduate science education over a five-year span. The initiative’s broad objective is to help colleges and universities to encourage participation and cultivate the talent of students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.

The Washington University initiative will be led by Regina F. Frey, the Florence E. Moog Professor of STEM Education and co-director of the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE) in Arts & Sciences.

Regina Frey

“The overarching goal of our project is to create an inclusive learning environment where all students feel welcome and have an equal opportunity to be successful in STEM disciplines at Washington University,” Frey said. “The program will help us create an inclusive environment that conveys a consistent narrative of success in STEM for all.”

Other core leaders, all from Arts & Sciences, include: Jennifer R. Smith, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and professor of earth and planetary sciences and of environmental studies; Jan Duchek, director of the Cornerstone learning center and associate professor of psychological and brain sciences; and Kathryn Miller, chair and professor of biology.

“I am both pleased and proud that Washington University has been selected for this grant and think it’s a tremendous credit to the team of outstanding faculty leaders who are on the front lines of this effort,” said Barbara A. Schaal, dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences. “Making our science curriculum more inclusive and fostering a diverse new generation of scholars is very important not only to me personally and to the Arts & Sciences community, but also to the future of science. Diversity of thought, perspective and experience advances the frontiers of discovery.”

The initiative comes at a time when Washington University is focusing on efforts to increase its enrollment of first-generation, lower-income and minority students.

These efforts have doubled the percentage of African-American undergraduates from 6 to 12 percent over the last four years. The first-year class entering in 2016 also included 9 percent Latino students, and 13 percent of the class was eligible for Pell Grants, a need-based federal grant for students with low-income backgrounds.

“With the help of programs like the HHMI Inclusive Excellence Initiative, we’re working to make Washington University a place where students can thrive in any field of study,” said Provost Holden Thorp, “including the most challenging of the natural sciences.”

Washington University student works on chemistry problems in the Teaching Center's Active Learning Lab

HHMI challenged schools to identify the reasons students are excluded from science and find new ways to include students in opportunities to achieve science excellence. In particular, the HHMI initiative focuses on undergraduates who come to college from diverse backgrounds and pathways. These students include underrepresented ethnic minorities, first-generation college students and working adults with families.

“We’re thinking differently about how HHMI can help to move science education forward,” HHMI President Erin O’Shea said in making the announcement. “The challenges this program addresses are important for all of us who care deeply about developing a more inclusive and diverse scientific community.”

In a significant move for HHMI, the new initiative shifts the locus of responsibility onto the schools improving the structure of the curriculum and the way it’s delivered, for example, adjusting school policies and procedures, training faculty and improving the climate and culture.

The Washington University proposal details a broad, campuswide plan to develop, implement and evaluate psychosocial and metacognitive training programs and interventions to increase inclusion in introductory STEM courses and during the first year of college. Frey said the initiative will provide specialized training and other resources for three key groups that interact closely with first-year students: faculty in STEM courses, student affairs advisers and professional staff; and undergraduate peer leaders, mentors and teaching assistants.

Working closely on the undergraduate student outreach program will be leaders from a range of campus student affairs programs, including: Chris Kroeger, associate dean for students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science; Emelyn dela Peña, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion; Robert M. Wild, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of the First-year Center; and Anthony Tillman, assistant provost for student success.

“We want to communicate the same message to these three key groups so that we are consistent across the board when we interact with first-year students in various environments,” Frey said. “We’ll be working together in creating an inclusive learning environment where all students feel confident pursuing STEM disciplines.”

The project will provide professors with tools and techniques they can use in the classroom and better prepare student advisers and peer mentors to provide support for students who may be struggling with STEM courses.

“An essential part of the project is working with undergrads who are involved with other students in peer learning and mentoring programs,” Frey said. “We want to teach them strategies they can use to recognize when first-year students are having struggles and to help these students meet the challenges.”

As HHMI notes in its news release, U.S. demographics are changing, therefore finding a way to include all students — from all backgrounds — in STEM is critical for building future generations of American scientists. Science excellence depends on having a community of scientists that is rich in diversity of people and perspectives.

“Too many times, we approach diversity with a deficit mindset in which interventions are aimed at fixing the students,” said David Asai, senior director for science education at HHMI. Instead, the new initiative focuses on the important work of making the culture of the institution more inclusive, he continued. “We want to change the way schools do business.” (Read more from Asai.)

Washington University already has made strides in its efforts to ensure that every student has the resources to engage fully in academic and campus life regardless of income or background. The university recently launched a four-year cohort program for Pell-eligible students that focuses on scholarship, leadership and service. It’s also raising $400 million to better support undergraduate and graduate students with financial need through scholarships via the Leading Together campaign.

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